Women in the Holocaust: In Memory of Gisèle Braka (1920-2013)

This in observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day late.

In 2013, I wrote this poem in Israel the morning I heard the news of Gisèle’s death. I was attending a conference on Women and the Holocaust in Israel, and my talk was about her heroic and unusual life as a Tunisian Jewish woman who joined the resistance during World War II, and experienced the war both in France and in Tunisia.

On This Day

On this day, women gathered to remember women, like you

Turning a flicker of hope, an act of kindness, a mother’s touch into a flame of eternal Memory

A humbling act indeed, for me, to name you

Hero

I shall not easily forget the twinkle in your eyes that told me you

Resisted

Persisted

Subsisted

Even after you had stopped using words, your actions spoke for you,

For your

Memory

On this day, women, young, old, and in-between, shared stories of

Survival

And even those who did not live, who do not live, who cannot live

Forever

Will always be among us now; their stories become ours as we

Resist

Persist

Subsist

Even after we stop using words, our actions will speak for us,

For our

Memory

In your

Memory

And so the flame remains eternal

On this day, you will be remembered

N.B.L., Nahariyah, Israel, March 5, 2013

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A(-nother) Moment of Awe

Oh, wow. Hmmm…Gosh. Ooh…Sigh…Gulp.

That’s me being awed during these awesome “Days of Awe;” the ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur; a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent.

I don’t think of them really as “sins” as much as actions or reactions I may have had in the past year that could have or should have been different. Sure, I can imagine a few of my behavioral faux-pas as sins, quite easily in fact, if I think of them in the context of the Yom Kippur prayer-book language, but since I’m resolved to be more compassionate, toward myself included, I choose not to use that language.

As a creative and emotional person, I am already prone to daily moments of being wonderstruck, to be amazed and at a loss for words (hence all the tears and maybe the laughter, too). To be awed by my surroundings is not unusual for me: people, places, and happenings, even the seemingly most insignificant ones, can easily leave me awestruck. This is perhaps what makes me at once a challenging partner, friend and parent, yet in the same swoop a deeply engaged and caring one.

And funny. And loud.

But yesterday I was especially quieted, and particularly awed by my octogenarian friend Leo, a Holocaust survivor. To such a degree was I feeling overwhelmed by reverential respect after something Leo said while we were sharing our lunch, that my heart skipped several beats, and I sounded like – if there was any sound at all – the onomatopoeias above:  Oh, wow. Hmmm…Gosh. Ooh…Sigh…Gulp.

On Yom Kippur it is customary to light memorial candles that burn for 24 hours. Special memorial prayers are said for our beloved departed ones, both privately and communally, to heighten the appreciation of the unique holiday spirit. It’s all about life and death, prayer for redemption, that sort of stuff: who shall live and who shall die, who by sward and who by fire…you catch my drift. Imagine the significance for these words and images for someone who has lived through the trauma of the Nazi death camps.

In between mouthfuls of his favorite Subway sandwich, Leo mentioned that his aide had not been able to find any memorial candles, that they were all sold out, everywhere. “Somebody cleaned’em out” I quipped. “Sure” he said, “there was a two for one sale!” I knew I had one at home, in the bottom of a drawer somewhere, left from last time (they were on sale!) and so I offered him mine. I would always be able to track down another one for myself before the big day.

Since my one, significant loss in life – my father died nearly three years ago – I have lit a candle for him on Yom Kippur and other fast days. Although he was not a Jew, I chose to ritually enter into the private and communal act of remembrance “à la manière juive” since this is, after all, how I have chosen to live my life.

“Oh, thank you sweetheart,” Leo offered, “but I need twelve candles!” I looked a bit puzzled up from my salad that I was only picking at to keep him company, and before I could begin to realize what he meant, let alone ask, he matter of faculty reminded me of the sober statistics of his life. In a voice sounding like a patient teacher kindly enumerating the mathematical facts – so often repeated for the students at a loss and who just can’t grasp it – as if the facts were the bare bones reality of the most incomprehensible highest truth: “I light eight candles for my brothers and sisters [who were children and killed in the Holocaust], two for my parents [also killed in the camps], one for the woman who saved me [a righteous Polish Christian], and one for Norma [his late life partner].”

I fell silent. In less than a nano-second it seems images of my own children flash before my eyes, as well as my sister and myself as children, and my parents as I have been blessed to know them and love them all my life. It was “just” another moment – but a profound moment – of awe, mixed with fear AND wonder at all the kindness, resilience and courage, as well as with all the impossible heartache, evil and desperation a person can carry with him in his life, and even more admiration that this person can still have the capacity to wake up in the morning and chose to greet another day with a smile; making friends, loving his neighbors and finding enough hope and dreams to hang on.

I wish all of you, too, the ability to be able to find some awe in your days. Pick a day, any day. It’s important to feel the awe.

Days of Awe